This is a copy of a letter I wrote to the seniors from my high school, who are just now hearing back from college applications, published on December 15, 2020 in the Daily Urinal.
Update: here is my Binder of Rejection, which is where I keep all my rejection letters since graduate school.
Dearest Seniors, Super Seniors, and Precocious Juniors—
I write to tell a story about rejection. In December of 2005 I was rejected early decision from Columbia, my dream school at the time. “Early” decision is a misnomer – I was in fact, the earliest decision, the very first person in my class (‘06) to get rejected from anywhere. While it was nice to finally be the first at something at Bishop’s, I would have preferred just about any other honor. To make matters worse, my girlfriend (who I was surely going to marry one day) and I both applied to Columbia early decision, which means we both got our replies by mid-December 2005. She got in. I didn’t… which is part of what I sobbed about in Dr. Rappaport’s classroom during Milk Break. I didn’t handle this news well. I didn’t tell anyone. I was mum on my shame and failure.
At least for the first day.
So I went home, and I cried more into a pillow, and then sadness turned to anger, and anger turned to humor, and humor turned to the light side. Columbia had decided against me, so I decided that, rather than be mopey or hide my shame, I was going to embrace it and publicly mock Columbia. In a fit of passion, tears, and fury, I took my rejection letter, switched the subject and object of every sentence (i.e., We [Columbia] regret to inform you [Evan]… becomes I [Evan] regret to inform you [Columbia]…). I printed it out and I taped the original and my satire of the rejection up side-by-side right in the middle of the westernmost window of the Senior Rec Room. Within a few weeks the whole window was covered with fellow rejection letters from my peers—iteration upon iteration of the same form letters and their hollow words and empty consolations. Graffiti organically sprouted across the letters: “Fuck those guys.” “Fuck UCLA!” “Fuck Duke!” “Heck’em!” If you got in, you got in—no one was going to make you feel less amped about that. But if you were denied, at least you knew you weren’t alone—not by a long shot.
That is how the tradition of the Wall of Rejection started.
The Wall of Rejection is about making the best of a bad situation. It is about directing negative energy into humor, and turning “failures” into character-building, community-bonding successes. Having such a tradition makes it an honor to be the first one to be rejected from college (who gets to start the wall this year?)—you don’t have to hide it, you can be the first to set the standard for the satire. The Wall of Rejection dismisses any possibility of having a culture of silence and rumor around college applications/acceptances/rejections, a culture of silence and shame that flourished long before the Wall. There is no reason any student should feel ashamed about not getting into college in any way whatsoever.
What I mean is, when you step back and look at the whole application system at a distance: what the hell is any seventeen-year-old supposed to do when asked to compose a ridiculous, paradoxical, oxymoronic writing form best called a “humblebrag” but more conventionally known as a “personal statement”? Never forget that, when it comes to college, the quality of the education you receive depends far less on the institution, and far more on the student. School is first and foremost about learning to take responsibility for your own education.
Dear Seniors, you won’t believe what happened next. The administration took down the Wall. They tore it down like it was 1989 in their misplaced self-righteous micromanagement of what is obviously a Very Good Thing. And every year they wage war on the Wall because they do not understand what we understand.
Seniors—I implore you—build back that Wall!
Build it back better!
Apologize for nothing.
Concede nothing to a culture of shame.
Let no one police your stoic, heroic, hagakure-esque acceptance of rejection.
Let the higher-uptight myopic muckymucks tear down not-their letters and scrape the scotch tape off the Wall with all the scotomizing passionlessness that is the foundation of a culture of shame and silence. May the tape stick to their nails! Theirs is the work of Sisyphus: the letters will come again. They will never learn the most important lessons of rejection:
Make no small plans.
Dream no small dreams.
Failure is just success with poor marketing. And sometimes failure is just failure. That’s okay too.
Rejectedly but not Dejectedly Yours,
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Religion & the Human
Indiana University, Bloomington
PhD American Studies, Harvard University
MA English, Harvard University
BA English, Art History, Vassar College
Passionate and persistent lifelong fuck-up.
Suggested Reading List
Yamamoto Tsunetomo – Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (~1713)
M.C. Richards – Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964)
Jack Halberstam – The Queer Art of Failure (2011)
 A famously difficult English teacher who has since retired and aged into a dotty old fascist (but that’s another story).
 Y’all still have Milk Break, right? It was basically morning snack time at around 10 every day. Bishop’s provided free milk, hence the name. Delete this is if it still exists and doesn’t need explaining.
 The Book of the Samurai. Go read it, you need this right now.